Sam Billings has said that the chance to learn from MS Dhoni at Chennai Super Kings during this year’s IPL was an opportunity that made his subsequent struggles for form worthwhile.
Billings started his IPL campaign in impressive style with a matchwinning 56 from 23 balls, in partnership with Dhoni, against Kolkata Knight Riders. However, he was unable to touch those heights again, as he finished a stop-start stint with 108 runs at 13.50 in ten innings all told.
That lack of time in the middle then seemed to spill over into Billings’ sketchy start to his home international summer – he was overlooked for England’s T20 and ODI squads against India after failing in two innings against Scotland and Australia last month.
But Billings insists he has few regrets about his time at CSK and says that, as a wicketkeeper-batsman who is now settling into his captaincy role at Kent, Dhoni is a role model whose input and advice can only improve his game.
“It was incredible batting with him in the first game, and to get us across the line as well,” Billings told ESPNcricinfo at a Chance to Shine event in Sussex. “What struck me most was his calmness. He’s just so calm the whole time.
“I asked him about it, and he said that, through experience and being able to train, he’s got better and better at it towards the latter part of his career. It was amazing to witness – he selects the bowlers that he looks to take down, then executes it as well. It’s pretty special being at the other end and in the same dressing room as someone like that.”
The lessons were manifest at the other end of the pitch as well. In light of England’s struggles to pick the variations of India’s mystery spinners, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, in the first T20I, Billings said that exposure to such bowlers on a daily basis was another valuable reason for having a stint in the competition.
“You have to adapt very quickly to two high-quality spinners, but that is the benefit of playing in the IPL,” Billings said. “You come up against quality spin every time you play the game. It’s about adapting, having a gameplan and putting the pressure back onto them.
“Chahal is a great bowler, he got me out at Bangalore this year, and Kuldeep with his variations is high class as well. The challenge is to adapt as quickly as possible, and certainly the reverse-sweep and sweep are good options, especially if you are not picking them.”
Billings returned to form with the bat in the recent Royal London Cup final at Lord’s, although his 75 from 60 balls wasn’t enough to get Kent across the line against Hampshire. Nevertheless, he found himself implementing some of Dhoni’s techniques while marshalling his troops from behind the stumps.
“It was about being conscious of body language, not giving too much away to the batsman but the bowler as well, to be honest,” he said. “People don’t mean to bowl bad balls, but the way Dhoni deals with it and relaxes, ultimately it makes them feel a hell of a lot more comfortable.”
Dhoni, however, isn’t the only star batsman from whom Billings has been picking up a few tips in recent months. Jos Buttler’s form, both for Rajasthan Royals in the IPL and for England in all formats, has been revelatory – particularly, in T20 cricket, since his move to the top of the order.
“He’s one of the best players in the world when he’s playing like he is at the moment,” Billings said. “It’s a pleasure to watch. I’ve known him a long, long time and he’s a great mate of mine, so to see him going so well is brilliant.
“To be honest, his game has always been there, it’s just his consistency. Now that he’s putting those consistent scores together, he’s pretty much unstoppable when he gets into full flow.”
Consistency for Billings has clearly been lacking of late, although his natural confidence has not been dented by his struggles out in the middle. On the contrary, he sees Buttler’s flowing form as proof that his own good times can roll again.
“I’m a similar type of player to Jos, and I’m looking to up my game as well and emulate what he’s done,” Billings said. “To see him go from a middle-order role to excelling at the top of the order is really pleasing. As cricketers now you’ve got to be versatile and he’s doing it as well as anyone now.
“It’s tough being in and out of the team and feeling like you have to prove yourself every single time you go out to bat,” Billings said of his stop-start international career. “You play one ODI, then you don’t play another one for nine months. But that’s international sport.
“I average over 40 in List A cricket, so my stats are on the board. It’s about reminding myself of what I’ve done with Kent and for the [England] Lions, and focusing on that some more going into the future.
“I’m just looking forward to getting another opportunity. It will come at some point, and it’s about taking it, as simple as that. It’s a really hard side to break into at the moment, but there’s plenty of competition around, and when the opportunity arises, hopefully I’ll be ready.”
Sam Billings was speaking at an event for National children’s charity Chance to Shine, who are teaming up with ICC and ECB to deliver the Cricket World Cup 2019 Schools’ programme